Militarily neutral Finland in talks with U.S. on closer defense collaboration; minister

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland, which has a long land border with Russia and maintained strict neutrality through the Cold War, is negotiating a defense collaboration agreement with the United States and aims to sign it this autumn, its defense minister said on Monday.

Jussi Niinisto told Reuters the framework agreement, coming at a time when Nordic states have complained of increased Russian military activity in the region, would not contain the obligations for military assistance that membership of the NATO alliance would involve.

“It would cover areas where we already work together, like military training, information sharing and research,” he said by telephone.

Finland, which has a border with Russia more than 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) long, joined a NATO summit dinner in July for the first time in a show of common purpose.

But Helsinki is aware any move to membership of the alliance would anger Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted he would move troops closer to Finland’s border if it joined.

Niinisto said Finland, long a part of the Russian empire, sought to sign the deal before the US administration changed as a result of November elections.

“It’s one of the reasons to have it done this autumn. But I’m certain we will continue to work together with either one of main candidates winning,” Niinisto said.

Concern about Russian military activity has grown especially in Finland, Sweden and the three former Soviet Baltic republics - Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia - since Russian forces occupied and then annexed the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014.

Russia denies it poses any threat to the Nordic countries and accuses the West of expansionist ambitions.

Finland maintained neutrality during the Cold war, allying itself neither to the Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact alliance nor NATO; nor did it join other Western blocs such as the EU

Sweden signed a similar collaboration agreement with the United States in June, and its parliament in May granted NATO more access to the neutral country for training exercises.

The Finnish government said in its recent defense policy review that it would monitor the security situation in the Baltic Sea region and maintain the option to join NATO.

Reporting by Tuomas Forsell; editing by Jussi Rosendahl and Ralph Boulton